Icons of grace

Print edition : June 15, 2012

Yakshi, terracotta, second century B.C., Patna Museum, Bihar. She is seen wearing a big necklace, earrings and anklets with bells; the lower garment is ornamented. The hairdo is elaborate, with several rings that have spokes.-

Folk goddesses in pre-Aryan days, yakshis went on to become protective deities in Indian religions.

YOU will find them everywhere, as sculptured figures of women hanging from a tree laden with mangoes, on the gateways to Buddhist stupas, adjacent to Jaina tirthankaras as exquisite bas-reliefs on the rock faces of hills, in wayside shrines, as terracotta figurines and stucco idols, as beautiful bronzes elsewhere, and as murals in temples. They are yakshis, popular folk goddesses of pre-Aryan days who metamorphosed into protective deities during the time of the brahminical religion and later as female attendants of Jaina tirthankaras. Yakshis are also celebrated deities in the Buddhist pantheon.

The history of the yakshi cult in India is a fascinating one. Yakshi sculptures have been found in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh; Didarganj and Basarh in Bihar; Bhopal, Sanchi and Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh; Ellora in Maharashtra; Udayagiri and Khandagiri in Odisha; Tiruppanmalai, Vallimalai, Anaimalai, Tirumalai, Samanamalai, Sithamur and Sitharal in Tamil Nadu; Aihole and Shravanabelagola in Karnataka; and Nagarjunakonda, Kondapur, Peddapur and Amaravathi in Andhra Pradesh. About 50 bronze statues of yakshis have been found in different parts of India.

A SCULPTURE OF the yakshi Ambica at the Ellora caves in Maharashtra, 12th century A.D. She is seated in the "suhasana" pose on a simha, or lion, under a mango tree. The sculpture of a child sitting in her lap is broken. Her maid and a sage are behind her.-

In pre-Aryan days, yakshis were worshipped by rural folk expecting boons or protection from evil. The main Indian religions of later days appropriated these goddesses to attract the rural people and make them accept these religions without reservation.

DIDARGANJ YAKSHI, MAURYA period, third century B.C. A maulvi found this on the banks of the Ganga at Didarganj, a suburb of Patna, on October 18, 1917. This sandstone sculpture, worked to a lustrous polish, is a masterpiece in Indian art. Exuding sensuous grace, the yakshi holds a flywhisk in her right hand. She wears a pearl necklace, a pendant on her forehead, bangles and anklets. Her hair is knotted and the sari is pleated.-

The importance given to yakshis in Jainism can be seen from the fact that there is a yakshi for each of the 24 tirthankaras. They are the tirthankaras' guardian deities. Of these 24 yakshis, only five are celebrated in sculptures, terracotta figurines and bronzes, the most popular of them being Ambica, the yakshi of Neminatha, the 22nd tirthankara. The others are Padmavathy, Siddhakkiya, Jwalamalini and Chakreswari, the protecting goddesses respectively of Parsvanatha, Mahaveera, Chandraprabha and Adinatha, the 23rd, the 24th (and the last), the eighth and the first tirthankaras. With the decline of Jainism, yakshis have become folk deities again.

Yakshis have a special place in the art history of India, said V. Vedachalam, retired senior epigraphist, Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, who has done insightful research on the origin and growth of the yakshi cult. From the time of the Mauryas (fourth century B.C.), the Kushanas (second century B.C.) and the Guptas (fourth century A.D.) to the 13th century A.D., yakshis were celebrated in hundreds of stand-alone sculptures, bas-reliefs, terracotta figurines and stunning bronzes. However, yakshi worship established itself in a regular manner from the Gupta period. In Tamil Nadu, there have been separate shrines for them from the 12th century.

TERRACOTTA FIGURINE, THIRD century B.C. It has prominent earrings and a decorated hairstyle. The yakshi's eyes are elongated. She is seated and seems to be holding two babies. Yakshis are generally portrayed holding babies or having a bunch of mangoes in their hands.-

Etymologically, the words yaksha and yakshi have their origins in yas , yak or vaj, meaning mysterious, marvellous, spiritual apparition or semi-divine beings. The worship of Isakki Amman (isakki originating from the word yakshi) is popular to this day in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. The earliest reference to yakshi in Tamil is found in the Jaina epic Silappadhikaram, which talks of Poongkann Iyakki, that is, a yakshi with eyes soft as flowers.

THIS TERRACOTTA YAKSHI belongs to the third century B.C., Maurya period. She is seen holding a baby close to her chest and has big earrings. Otherwise the figurine lacks ornamentation.-

There were two stages in the evolution of yakshi worship, said Vedachalam, in his Mylai Seeni Venkatasami Endowment Lecture on Yakshi cult in Tamil Nadu, organised by the Tamil Department of Madras University, on March 2. In the first stage, yakshis did not belong to any major organised religion. People in rural areas worshipped them as guardian deities that resided in a formless manner on trees, in rivers, lakes and ponds, and on highways. They made offerings to the trees, rivers or lakes where they believed yakshis resided. Later, the brahminical religion, Jainism and Buddhism took yakshis into the fold and converted them into secondary deities in their pantheon.


The reason for these major religions absorbing yakshis as goddesses was the extraordinary influence they wielded among villagers and others. These religions wanted to attract people and make people accept them with out any reservation, reasoned Vedachalam. The yakshi icon's features were the source of inspiration for depicting several deities in the major Indian religions. For instance, the portrayal of the features of Lakshmi, who stands for prosperity, is gleaned from the sculpture of a yakshi that belongs to the Mauryan period.

THE SANCHI STUPA (above) in Madhya Pradesh has eight yakshis sculpted on its four gateways (below). Since yakshis are associated with trees, these yakshis are shown standing under the mango tree or other trees or a banana plant. While the Sanchi stupa itself was erected by Emperor Asoka (third century B.C.), the Sungas renovated it by erecting the railings in the second century B.C. and the Satavahanas built the four gateways circa the first and second century A.D. These yakshis, two each on each gateway, look sensuous and realistic.-

The sculpture of a yakshi found at the Buddhist site at Amaravathi and that of one standing in a lotus at Basarh in Bihar were the forerunners of the Lakshmi icon. Even the features of the Saptamatrikas [seven mother goddesses] were adopted from the sculptures of yakshis of the early period, Vedachalam said.

At the height of their influence, from the second century B.C. to the 16th century A.D., every medium was used to portray yakshis. They were sculpted in a variety of stones marble, sandstone and on the rock faces of hills terracotta, wood, stucco, and so on.

In his book entitled Yakshi worship, written in Tamil and published in 1989 by Annam Publishers in Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, Vedachalam says there are several references to yakshis in the Buddhist Jataka tales, including the Vessantaraka Jataka and the Mugapakka Jataka. In the Mahajanaka Jataka, there is a reference to the goddess Manimekalai, who was appointed to protect the seas nearby, and how she transported the Bodhisattva to Mithila. This Jataka tale talks about the offerings made to a goddess residing in a tree.

One of the earliest yakshi sculptures of extraordinary beauty and outstanding workmanship was found on October 18, 1917, at Didarganj on the banks of the Ganga river, just outside Patna. The sculpture, which is dated to the Mauryan period, is on display at the Patna State Museum.

This yakshi is made out of mirror-polished sandstone. In sheer majesty, feminine grace, poise, ornamentation and attention to detail, it surpasses any rival. The Didarganj yakshi, looking voluptuous with wide hips, has a superb hairdo, a decorated dress, a big flywhisk in her right hand and ornaments, including anklets.

Another notable yakshi, datable to the third century B.C., was found at Basarh. It has features resembling that of a mother-goddess figurine.

Yakshis in Buddhism

From the second century B.C., sculptures of yakshis occupied a prominent place on the arches of gateways and thoranas of Buddhist stupas, viharas and chaityas. Beautiful sculptures of yakshis hanging from the branches of mango and other trees are found on the gateways of the stupas at Barhut, Bodh Gaya and Sanchi. Of great beauty are the eight yakshi sculptures at the four gateways to the Sanchi stupa.

KAZHUGUMALAI IN TAMIL Nadu, a great centre of Jaina learning from the eighth century to the 11th century A.D., has a couple of hundreds of bas-reliefs of Jaina tirthankaras and yakshis. This bas-relief shows Ambica standing under a "kalpaga vriksha". She has demonstrated her "golden appearance" as demanded by her husband, who is standing next to her. The sculptor has shown him raising his hand to shield his eyes from the dazzle, and his face is not sculpted. To the left is the sculpture of Neminatha, the tirthankara whom Ambica protects.-

Terracotta yakshis of the Satavahana period (circa the first century to the second century A.D.) have been found at Kondapur, Peddapur, Nagarjunakonda and Amaravathi, all in Andhra Pradesh. The yakshi at Nagarjunakonda is seen standing on a simha (lion) and a makara (crocodile/fish), and those at Kondapur and Peddapur are seated in the ardha pariyanka pose. These terracotta yakshis look human, with two hands and simple features. They have in their hands fruits and a parakeet. Some yakshis hold a flywhisk.

The 24 yakshas and 24 yakshis in the Jaina pantheon were believed to have been assigned to each tirthankara to protect him. Initially, a yaksha and a yakshi were sculpted on either side of the tirthankara they protected. Over a period of time, the yakshis were carved out separately adjacent to the bas-reliefs of the tirthankaras. In Tamil Nadu, even separate shrines were built for the yakshis.

THIS AMBICA YAKSHI is at Aihole in Karnataka and is sculpted out of locally available granite. She is seated sideways on a platform under a tree, which has big fruits. Her "vahana", the lion, is seated below her. A maid is standing behind her. The sculpture also shows her two children. This artefact belongs to the seventh century A.D., the Chalukya period.-

After Buddhism accepted the yakshi cult, which was already prevalent all over India, several goddesses were given specific features and came to be worshipped in Buddhism, said Vedachalam. He said that the worship of female deities in Buddhism was given pre-eminence because of Vajrayana Buddhism, which had a liberal outlook.

The worship of female deities in Buddhism reached its peak after the fifth century A.D. Some of the deities in the Buddhist pantheon are Janguli, Sunda, Tara, Saraswati, Brihudi and Hariti. The Draupadi Amman temples found all over Tamil Nadu are believed to have been originally dedicated to Tara Devi. Vedachalam said the Ponniyamman (golden goddess) temples in the State should have been originally dedicated to Jwalamalini, another yakshi. The widespread influence of yakshis in Buddhism in Tamil Nadu could be gauged from the mention of female deities such as Sambapathy, Manimekalai, Deevathilakai, Chintadevi, Chitradeivam and Kandirpavai in the Tamil Buddhist work Manimekalai composed by Sathanar.

BRONZE FIGURE OF Ambica, State Museum, Bhopal, 12th century A.D. On either side of her is a female flywhisk bearer. Above her, seated, is Neminatha.-

The worship of yakshis in Buddhism spread to Tamil Nadu from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, where it flourished during the rule of the Satavahanas (between second century B.C. and second century A.D.) and the Ishavakus later. As evidence of the influence of the Satavahanas in northern Tamil Nadu, many coins and their moulds have been found in Kancheepuram.

Yakshi worship was prevalent in Tamil Nadu right from pre-Aryan days. A yakshi popular from the pre-Aryan era to this day is Isakki Amman. The worship of Isakki Amman or Pechi Amman is widespread in Virudhunagar, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts in southern Tamil Nadu. The influence of the goddess is such that even men are named Isakki Muthu and Pechi Muthu. Tamil Sangam (second century B.C. to third century A.D.) literary works such as Ettuthogai and Pathu Pattu mention the names of goddesses such as Suli, Surmagal, Varaiya Magalir, Kadalkezhuselvai, Kaan Amar Selvi, Pavai and Anangu. After the introduction of idol worship in Jainism, attendant deities were created for the tirthankaras. According to the Jaina faith, Indra appointed yakshas and yakshis to protect them. Between the sixth century and the tenth century A.D., the concept of 24 yakshis guarding the 24 tirthankaras got standardised.

AMBICA SEATED ON the lion under a mango tree, Bhopal. She wears a crown, a tiered necklace and another long necklace with a pendant, and has long earlobes. Above her crown is Neminatha.-

Vedachalam said: More than in north India, it was in Tamil Nadu that yakshi worship was vibrant. It played an influential role in the spread of Jainism in the Tamil country. In Jaina sites in different parts of Tamil Nadu, there are sculptures of yakshis, especially of Ambica, Padmavathy, Chakreswari, Jwalamalini and Siddhakkiya.

The first reference to a yakshi in ancient Tamil literature occurs in Silappadhikaram, and it shows that yakshi worship had come to prevail in the Tamil country even before the sixth century A.D. The reason for this was the advent of Jainism from the second century B.C. in Tamil Nadu.

SRI DHARMADEVI YAKSHI of Shravanabelagola, Karnataka. Ambica is also called Sri Dharmadevi. This sculpture belongs to the 15th century A.D., the Vijayanagara period. Shravanabelagola is famous for its tall sculpture of Gomatesvara (Bahubali) and is an important religious centre for Jains.-

Numerous bas-reliefs, stand-alone sculptures, bronzes, stucco figurines and murals of yakshis are found in Tamil Nadu. The earliest such sculpture of a yakshi available in Tamil Nadu is at Tiruppanmalai near Arcot. It is sculpted in a natural cavern, and a nearby inscription calls it Pon Iyakkiyar (golden yakshi). The bas-relief was made in A.D. 780, during the reign of the Pallava ruler Nandivarman II in his 50th regnal year. There is a debate about who this yakshi is, but Vedachalam is sure that it is Ambica.

A surfeit of Ambica bas-reliefs is available at Kazhugumalai, Tiruppanmalai, Anaimalai, Vallimalai, Tirumalai and Sithamur. Bronzes of Ambica have been found at Tirunarungondai, 16 km from Ulundurpet in Villupuram district; Aragalur in Salem district; Senganikuppam in Cuddalore district; and Arumbalur in Tiruvannamalai district. In these sculptures, she is shown standing under kalpaga vriksha or seated in the suhasana pose (with one leg folded) with her two children, her maid and her vahana, simha.

Kazhugumalai is among the finest Jaina sites in Tamil Nadu and has a profusion of sculptures of ethereal beauty, of tirthankaras and Ambica ( Frontline, October 24, 2008). It flourished as a Jaina centre of learning for 300 years from the eighth century A.D. A bas-relief of remarkable beauty at Kazhugumalai portrays the legend of Ambica. It shows her as a tall and elegant woman, standing under the kalpaga vriksha. Nearby are her husband Somavarman, their two children, her maid and her vahana. The story is that when her husband and his relatives had gone out on the annual remembrance day of their pitrus (ancestors) she cooked food for them. At that time, a Jaina monk came to her house seeking food. She gave him all the food. When her husband and his relatives came back, they were enraged that she had committed a sacrilege and drove her out of the house. She committed suicide.


In heaven, she became an attendant, that is, the yakshi, of Neminatha. However, Ambica was unable to forget her past. So Indra granted her a boon that she could return to earth and live with her husband and children while remaining a yakshi. At home, her husband wanted her to show her golden appearance to prove that she was a yakshi. When she did so, her appearance was so dazzling that he was almost blinded. The bas-relief shows him raising a hand in astonishment. His face is deliberately not sculpted.

Professor K. Ajithadoss, a specialist in Jainism in Tamil Nadu, said there was no Jaina temple or home in the State without an idol or picture of one of the yakshis. The yakshis who are most popular in the State are Ambica (Dharmadevi), Padmavathy and Jwalamalini. In certain temples, Chakresvari, the attendant deity of Adinatha, the first tirthankara, has a place. There are several Jaina temples that have separate shrines for these yakshis.

A MASTERPIECE IN stone from Khujaraho. This sculpture belongs to the 11th/12th century A.D., the Chandela period. Ambica is seated on the simha in a "suhasana" pose and is richly ornamented. She holds fruits in one hand and a child in the other. Two of the four hands of the sculpture have been vandalised. The pillars have leonine motifs.-

Invariably, all Jaina temples in Tamil Nadu have Ambica in the form of either a bronze idol or a stone sculpture. In the temple dedicated to Kunthunatha tirthankara (17th tirthankara) and situated at Karanthai, 30 km from Kancheepuram, there is a separate shrine for Ambica. The deity here is made of sudhai (lime-mortar), said Ajithadoss, who was formerly head of the department of Plant Biology and Plant Biotechnology at Presidency College, Chennai. Car and float festivals for yakshas and yakshis are also held in Tamil Nadu.

There is a growing opposition among Jains in Tamil Nadu these days to yakshi worship. The argument put forward, said Prof. Ajithadoss, was that yakshis were not equivalent in any respect to tirthankaras and that they were mere mortals. So, temples recently built by Tamil Jains do not have any idol other than that of tirthankaras for worship. Even the references to yakshas and yakshis in the traditional devotional songs/ sthuthis have been removed. This trend is of recent origin, he said.

BAS-RELIEF FROM VALLIMALAI, near Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Ambica (extreme right) is seated in a "suhasana" pose and is shown wearing a necklace, armbands and a tiered "makuda", or crown, above which is a tirthankara. Tamil literature celebrates the yakshi as "aruganai mudi kavitha bhagavathy ammai", or the one who bore the "arugan" (tirthankara) in her crown. Adjacent to her are bas-reliefs of Jaina tirthankaras. Provenance: eighth century A.D.-

With the decline of Jainism and Buddhism in India, things seem to have come full circle. Yakshis are back where they originally belonged worshipped in villages as folk deities.